Since leaving for my mission more than six years ago, I have never been in the same ward for longer than a year. Each area in the mission only lasted months, after the mission came singles wards both outside and within BYU-Idaho that changed from semester to semester. Even after getting married we ended up moving to various apartments, and then completely out of state, and now in graduate school I anticipate having to move at some point for an internship, and to wherever I may find a steady job.
While the instability has brought some challenges, it has been interesting to get the broad perspective of musical contribution in each ward. I’ve been in wards that wouldn’t even try to form a choir, wards that would give a respectable attempt to put together a choir for a Christmas number each year, as well as a remarkable ward that would put on a musical number every week, some by a choir, others by smaller ensembles. In many of the wards I've attended there have been music leaders that were frustrated by a lack of participation in their ward choir, congregational singing, or the like. One choir leader in particular would show up faithfully every week, even though her and the choir pianist were the only people who would show up. (It was about the same time my wife was working with a difficult pregnancy, so I was struggling to participate as well). All this is to say, there are many wards and congregations that struggle to maintain an adequate music program. This is a bit of a heart breaker for those passionate about the monumental influence that music can provide for ward functionality. Surely in a church run by Jesus Christ himself, the music program would not be neglected as it is?
the church is growing faster than the musical education of its members. This is not to say that music education is lacking, rather, it's a testament to the remarkable growth of the church. Imagine a ward that has one good organist that has been playing for years, and perhaps enjoys doing so. If she needs she could possibly call on one other person to sub for her, although that individual may not particularly desire to play the organ each week as a regular calling, or have other callings that prevents him from doing so. Then the ward splits into three. Now there are three wards that need a qualified organist, and only two of them has one who is able to do so. The solution? We need members and music leaders who will think outside the box, challenge social norms, and figure out solutions to the challenges that the growing church has to offer.
I'll give an example. In the midst of participating with the struggling ward I mentioned earlier I was also tasked with writing a research paper on the size of Bach’s church choir. Interesting topic right? Bach, uncelebrated in his time as he is now, was a Lutheran Church organist. His works span the simplest of songs for the beginning keyboardist to some of the most complex and chromatic masterpieces. I’ve played some of his works for piano, though also admit to avoiding them as well. They are well worth the effort, but demand a lot of it. Anyway, part of the assignment incorporated a letter in which Bach vents to a comrade about the sparsity of the choir he had to work with. (Sounds familiar doesn’t it?) I can provide the source for anyone who may want to read it themselves. In this letter Bach states that he could manage a decent performance if he had regular attendance by two people of each voice part. This was interesting for me. While there are many wards struggling on a musical level, in Bach’s opinion, all we’d need for a good functioning ward choir is two people per part. That’s a total of eight people in a choir.
difficult, you might thing about arranging a meeting with a bishopbric to call eight people as section leaders, two per voice part, which would provide for a great core for a choir that could be filled out by other volunteers from there.
Anyway, there are many solutions one can come up with if you're committed to finding a solution and are willing to pray for guidance. In my ward I’ve had the great experience of being a ward music chairman. The new ward I’ve been in, from what I hear, has had their own struggles with musical output in the past, along with the other two wards that meet in the same building. Yet as I’ve worked with the other members with music callings I’ve been coming to the sense that the only thing preventing a ward from participating confidently in ward music, is having a music leader that is able to draw out the musical skills from the members. I am of the firm opinion that every human being has musical capacities within them. (I’m sure some of you readers may disagree, we should chat). What a successful ward music leader must do is have the skill and confidence to draw all those musical capacities out of them. We may have to think creatively, work with weird ensemble groups, or with all sorts of setbacks, weird harmonies or slow accompanists. Regardless, I know it is both worth it, and possible. John Rutter, who writes for choir ensembles, has said, “a church without a choir is like a body without a soul.” So for those in struggling wards, don’t give up hope. Keep fighting. Keep thinking outside the box and challenging local norms. For those in musically successful wards, I would encourage you to reach out to others who are not so lucky to give feedback, encouragement and instruction. There is a lot of need out there. Music can knit our hearts together and soften the hardest of hearts. As musical output grows across the church, so too will the spiritual power in every ward and congregation.
I came across this video today, I think it has great meaning for Ward choirs:
I'm a sacred music enthusiast. I'm one of those people that attends church for the music just as much as the sermon, one of those people that give an evil glare at the people who leave for the congregational hymns, (Ok no, not really).